By Jack Ryan

Aaron Nola hadn’t pitched in a competitive game in 264 days, saw his first full major league season cut short last year with elbow problems and was mediocre in spring training.

So last night’s performance was a big relief to the Phils.

“I think he needed a good performance for his own confidence,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. “I saw a lot of what we’re looking for out of him.”

Nola struck out seven, walked two and held a dangerous Nationals lineup at bay as the Phillies evened the three-game series with a 17-3 rout Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park.

Having touched 94 mph in spring training on a radar gun that can sometimes inflate velocity, Mackanin was happy Nola validated those spring readings by hitting 94 mph multiple times in the first.

“I’m really happy to see the velocity, increased velocity,” Mackanin said. “On the other hand, we didn’t see the command [in Spring Training] that we’ve seen from him over the last couple of years, but we saw a lot better command tonight. Command is the most important. Command is a pitcher’s best pitch.”

After beginning last season as one of the best pitchers in the National League, Nola faltered in his final eight starts before spending the season’s final two months on the disabled list.

His ERA in his first 12 starts was 2.65, a figure that more than tripled in his last eight starts (9.82).

Last night he looked more like early-2016 Nola. All seven of his strikeouts fell into two neat categories: four swings and misses on sharp curveballs and three looking at darting two-seamers.

“I felt pretty good with the two-seamer moving back on the corner to righties and to lefties … later in the count I felt like I executed when I needed to,” Nola said.

Even a 37-minute wait between his first and second innings didn’t shake Nola. His offense put together a franchise-record 12 runs in the bottom of the first, an inning he helped extend with a two-out walk.

Instead, he looked as sharp as ever.

A single ball in the second inning — which Statcast™ tracked as inside the strike zone — was all that separated Nola from an immaculate nine-pitch, three-strikeout frame.

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